Wild Man Fischer: Outsider musician who was discovered by Frank Zappa but could never transcend his psychiatric disorders

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:00

Frank Zappa was not only one of the most prolific and idiosyncratic American musicians of the rock era, but also a great discoverer and enabler of other people's talent. In the late 1960s, the guitarist and his then manager, Herb Cohen, set up the Bizarre and Straight labels and issued a raft of records by Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart and Tim Buckley, three acts who have arguably proved more influential than Zappa himself. This triumvirate rather overshadowed albums by the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce, the groupie ensemble The GTOs – Girls Together Outrageously – and "Wild Man" Fischer, a mentally ill performer whom Zappa had met on Los Angeles' notorious Sunset Strip.

An outsider musician long before the expression was coined, Fischer made up nursery rhyme-like ditties such as "Merry Go Round", "Monkeys Versus Donkeys" and "Which Way Did the Freaks Go?", which he mostly sang a cappella in a raspy voice that often wavered from the intended melody and tempo. Opinions are still divided over whether this "naïve" approach made him worthy of the critical reappraisal recently afforded the blind street composer Moondog or the compulsive cassette-maker R Stevie Moore, or if he was simply a tormented figure more akin to Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators, or the singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, two performers whose psychological problems have taken their music into unexpected directions. Still, he attracted a cult following and influenced outré artists like "Weird Al" Yankovic and Devo, whose frontman, Mark Mothersbaugh, called Fischer "as pure a rock'n'roll icon as you could find."

After issuing the 36-track double set An Evening with Wild Man Fischer on Bizarre in 1968, he made three albums for Rhino Records. Indeed, in 1975, his "Go to Rhino Records" novelty single, intended to promote the Los Angeles store of the same name, became so popular that it gained a full release and set the label on the way to what it is today, one the world's most prestigious reissue imprints, part of the Warner Music Group.

Born Lawrence Wayne Fischer in Los Angeles in 1944, he experienced huge mood swings from an early age. When he was up, a manic state he called "the pep", he would sing Paul Anka hits at the top of his voice and improvise and memorise his own compositions. But when he hit rock bottom, he heard voices and turned on his family. After he threatened his mother with a knife in 1963 she had him committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital, and again in 1965, and he was eventually diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and manic depression.

By 1967, with medication, Fischer's condition seemed to have stabilised – or maybe he just fitted in more with the freakier elements of the music scene in and around Hollywood. He began entering talent contests and performing on the streets, offering "New Kind of Songs for Sale" to passers-by for a nickel or a dime. He gained enough of a following to open for Solomon Burke, who reportedly came up with the "Wild Man" nickname, as well as Bo Diddley, the Byrds and Iron Butterfly. "I thought from the first day I met him that someone should make an album with Wild Man Fischer," said Zappa, who arranged for him to take part in a Christmas show also involving The Mothers of Invention, Alice Cooper and The GTOs at the Shrine in December 1968. Typically, Fischer sang a breathless, demented version of "Circle" while lapping the auditorium. A subsequent appearance on the TV sketch-comedy programme Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In baffled hosts and viewers and failed to turn him into the next Tiny Tim.

An Evening with Wild Man Fischer remains a period curio rather than a seminal work on a par with Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, but Zappa's guitar and production helped make tracks like "Circle" and "The Taster" easier on the ear than the unaccompanied second side of the original vinyl album. However, while visiting the Zappas to ask about the royalties he thought he was owed after selling 12,000 copies, Fischer rather overstayed his welcome and threw a bottle at their infant daughter, Moon Unit, though thankfully he missed. His relationship with Zappa never recovered. In fact, Gail Zappa, Frank's widow, has so far refused to sanction the release of An Evening with Wild Man Fischer on CD.

Fischer might just have stayed an eccentric footnote in the Zappa story were it not for his involvement with Rhino in the mid-1970s and the championing of his nonsensical songs ("My Name Is Larry", "I'm Selling Peanuts for the Dodgers", "I Wish I Was a Comic Book") by "Dr Demento", the broadcaster Barret Hansen. He also worked with the comedy-rock duo Barnes & Barnes, whose underground hit "Fish Heads" he covered on Pronounced Normal, the second of his three Rhino albums, in 1981. The pair also wrote and produced "It's a Hard Business", his 1986 duet with Rosemary Clooney, the singer and actress who suffered from bipolar disorder. In 2005, he was the subject of a powerful documentary by the uBin Twinz – director Josh Rubin and producer Jeremy Lubin – called Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry "Wild Man" Fischer, which premiered at SXSW and introduced him to a new generation of fans. The previous year, he had moved into an assisted-living facility for psychiatric patients in Van Nuys, California.

"You've gotta have talent, you've gotta have luck and you've gotta have persistence," said Fischer, who never achieved his ambition of being "bigger than The Beatles." But, he said, "I'm famous in England, Germany, everywhere."

Pierre Perrone

Lawrence Wayne Fischer, musician: born Los Angeles 6 November 1944; died Los Angeles 16 June 2011.

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